Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Bumpy Bridge and the Big Man on the Beach

Eager to enjoy the last few sunny days of summer vacation, the boys and I drive to our local playground. I am surprised to see the parking lot jammed with SUV’s and mini vans. It appears that I am not the only one saddened to see the warm, lazy days of summer come to an end.

The park has a playground area nestled under the shade of several large pine trees. There are many wooden climbing structures, a collection of slides, and a large truck tire swing that sits in the middle of the park.  A thick covering of wood chips and fragrant pine needles soften the ground. There is also a small beach area that overlooks Pentucket Pond where Mallard ducks and cormorants frolic on the sandy shore. 

My vehicle no sooner comes to a stop and Weston is out the door, one hand clutching a beach towel, the other hand holding his sneakers.

"Later Mom!” he shouts as he runs toward the beach.

“Stay where I can see you,” I shout.

“OK Mummmm,” he answers, annoyed with my motherly concerns and completely oblivious to what I have said. Like a flash he is gone.

Nicholas and I climb slowly out of the vehicle.

“Where do you want to go first?" I ask Nicholas, knowing exactly what he is going to say.

“The bumpy bridge!” He answers with a wide smile. He reaches for my hand.

The bumpy bridge is a miniature version of the rickety wooden bridge in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  It has been built on chains so it sways precariously back and forth. It hangs only a few inches off the ground but climbs over large truck tires from one side of the playground to the other. There are ropes on each side of the bridge for children to use to help steady them, as they cross the creaky wooden structure. Few children need to use these railings as they run easily over the swaying planks, maintaining their balance thoughtlessly as they advance full-speed-ahead to the awaiting wooden castle.

For my son Nicholas, the bumpy bridge is not just a crossing device to get to the pretty castle. To him, it is like a gym, a place for him to exercise his muscles. It is an obstacle course. Like Project Adventure for kids, where he is free to practice his climbing skills and develop the confidence that most children instinctively posses. The bumpy bridge has steep hills. Every step causes the bridge to sway. This disrupts Nicholas’s under-developed sense of balance and although he is nine years old, his low muscle tone and lack of coordination make it difficult for him to stay centered.  He crosses the bridge like he is crossing a thin sheet of ice, he chooses his steps carefully. He must stop often, using the rope handles to steady himself.

The bumpy bridge is, by far, Nicholas’s favorite activity in the park.

Nicholas is noticeably taller than the other children on the playground. They swarm past him like bumble bees flying quickly and confidently over the bridge to the painted castle. I take a seat on one of the wooden benches. Nicholas looks over to me for reassurance. I give him the mandatory secret thumbs-up sign. He winks and smiles, ready to begin his perilous journey across the bumpy bridge.

Holding my breath, I watch my son climb slowly and carefully. After several minutes, he finally reaches the castle and stops for a moment to rest, wiping the sweat that has started to roll down his face. He looks at me again and waits for our secret sign. While the other children wiggle their way into the castle, Nicholas stops, and turns around. He is not interested in joining the other kids in the coveted castle. He is more interested in crossing the bridge again. Only this time, I notice, that like the other more nimble children, he is trying very hard not to use the rope handles for support. He moves even slower now desperately trying to cross the bridge without touching the ropes, the sweat pouring from his face.

Soon, another band of giggling preschoolers comes charging toward him. I take a deep breath and pray they don’t knock him down. He grabs the handles and stops. The mob of children passes all around him. I am ready to hear him scream, but instead, he smiles at them. He is not jealous of their ability to cross swiftly and easily.  I, unfortunately, am having trouble suppressing this unhealthy emotion and feel saddened that my son must work so hard simply to cross a bridge.

As I continue to observe Nicholas, I notice that he is happy. He is enjoying every one of his careful steps. When he starts to wobble, he smiles and grabs the handles. And when more droves of children almost knock him over, he smiles again, enjoying every second of his tiring adventure. He is exhilarated and anxious to continue practicing the art of crossing the bridge with no hands. He is uninhibited by his differences. Instead, he embraces them. He does not obsess about the meaning of the word “normal”. To him, he is the normal one, finding pleasure in the simple act of crossing a rickety bridge.

After several crossings, Nicholas starts to tire and tells me he is ready to go home. We head over to the beach area where Weston is playing. As usual, in the beach environment, Weston has found the perfect place to expel some of his restless energy. A group of small children has assembled around him. Like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, he is leading the tiny tanned tots in a game of skip the stones. Weston’s gang of miniature beach combers search the sandy shore for flattened artillery.

“I found one,” the boy in the green shorts shouts. He runs over to Weston and hands him the precious rock.

“Dude,” Weston says coolly, “That’s a good one, why don’t you throw it?” He encourages the timid boy to throw the stone.  The boy winds up and throws. The rock bounces off to the left and plunks hard into the water.

“Nice try guy,” Weston says, encouraging the boy to try again.

After a difficult year at the middle school, Weston has found himself this summer. He has discovered that in a new environment like the beach, his boundless energy and keen senses are just the helpful skills he needs to make plenty of new friends and find interesting treasures. The same traits that got him in so much trouble at school now help him to navigate and flourish in the beach environment. The damage to his self-esteem is finally repaired as Weston learns that there is a lot to like about himself.

“Weston, it’s time to go,” I shout.

“Awwwww Mummmmm,” he answers, “See ya latter guys,” he shouts to his gaggle of giggling groupies.

As Weston, Nicholas and I drive away from the playground, I reflect on our summer vacation adventures. Each of my children has faced difficult aspects of their diagnosis, and yet each has found a way to overcome. Nicholas found his courage while crossing the bumpy bridge. Weston found it leading a group of small children on the beach.  Perhaps each of them crossed their own bumpy bridge this summer, both boys concentrating carefully and choosing his own pathway across the difficult terrain.

I am sad our summer adventures are over, but for the first time in a long while I am looking forward to fall. I know the rope handles will always be there if I need them.


Please come visit us on our blog at Read about our adventures weathering Hurricane Irene.


  1. We, too, had a bridge. I think it was "wiggly" or "wobbly". It didn't have the little bumps, it was just a suspended bridge, on the playground in kindergarten. It was my little guy's favorite thing, when he wasn't swinging. :) Unfortunately the PTO ripped it out in first grade, to make room for a brand-new (and intimidating) play structure with molded plastic dinosaur fossils under the slide. When we moved two years ago, we discovered our new city's all ages/all abilities playground (a wonderful thing!!) had a wobbly bridge.

  2. You know, I must admit, when we go to the playground, I also like to take a few laps across the bumpy bridge! I guess you're never too old to still be a kid at heart! Hope you enjoy these last few days of summer.

  3. I loved your post
    "He is not jealous of their ability to cross swiftly and easily. I, unfortunately, am having trouble suppressing this unhealthy emotion and feel saddened that my son must work so hard simply to cross a bridge."
    your son is amazing ... and I know what you mean

  4. This is a lovely piece, and I just loved hearing about Nicholas and his navigation of the bridge and the other kids. You said your emotion was "unhealthy." I don't think it's unhealthy at all to wish that things were easier for our kids.
    It was great to hear that both of your kids had great summers. xo